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Schooling for Good Sleep—Interview with Richard Wiseman

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

June 9, 2014

Richard Wiseman holds Britain’s only professorship in the public understanding of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. His research into a range of topics including luck, the psychology of change, deception, and persuasion has been published in the world’s leading academic journals, while his psychology-based YouTube videos have received over 200 million views.

He is the author of several books that have been translated into over thirty languages, including The Luck Factor, Quirkology, Rip It Up, and the international best seller 59 Seconds. He’ll be returning to the skeptic conference The Amazing Meeting in 2014.

Based on exciting new research, mass-participation experiments, and the world’s largest archive of dream reports, Richard Wiseman’s new book, Night School, reveals the truth about sleep and dreaming. It aims to help you discover how to learn information while you sleep, find out what your dreams really mean, and get the best night’s sleep of your life.

Richard Wiseman

Richard Wiseman: I guess most of my work is getting out there into the real world and looking at issues that are relevant to people’s lives, and I think most psychologists should be doing that. Lots of them are, but it’s always on a slightly unusual, kind of quirky angle, so when it came to something like sleep, I was instantly interested and thinking, “Right. Well, dreaming is fascinating. Is it possible to control your dreams?” so I did some work on that. I’m always trying to find that slightly quirky angle!

Kylie Sturgess: Your new book is Night School, and it’s incredible in terms of all the lessons and ideas it gets across to people in terms of sleep and dreams. What got you into researching the topic in the first place?

Wiseman: Well, actually, this one came from a rather strange place in that I used to suffer from night terrors—and if any of your listeners suffer from them as well, they’ll know exactly what I’m talking about!

It’s when you sit up in the middle of the night; you don’t wake up, you just sit up normally, and you open your eyes, and you are convinced there is some kind of demonic entity, or something very evil, in the room, and sometimes with your eyes you follow that entity around, and sometimes you’ll scream, and leap out of bed, and so on.

I was having those on a fairly regular basis, once or twice a month, and I just became fascinated by what was going on in my mind, because as soon as you’ve had one, you go straight back to sleep.

You wake up your partner, if you’re sleeping with somebody, so they’re in actual waking state, and they’re furious because now they’ve been awoken from deep sleep and it disturbs their night, but actually for yourself, if you experience them, you go straight back in deep sleep.

I thought, “My goodness. Isn’t that amazing that that’s happening in my mind?” I assume there isn’t actually a demonic entity in my bedroom, although I’ve never actually gotten that possibility checked out.

The more I got into it, the more I realized that psychologists had done a lot of work in sleep and dreaming and understand how to get a good night’s sleep, but that work really hadn’t gone out into the public. The book is an attempt to put it out there.

Sturgess: It’s really cool that you are fascinated rather than terrified!

Wiseman: Yes! Well, actually, for the person experiencing them, you don’t remember very much about them! It really is more for your partner, it’s far more terrifying, but they have kind of an interesting experience.

Sturgess: How big a mystery is sleep? I hear occasionally about recent research into it, but has there been a lot done on this subject?

Wiseman: There’s been a huge amount—and I think the biggest myth about sleep is that you simply turn off at night, that not very much happens in your brain and body, and then you turn back on in the morning, and you get up and get on with your life, and it’s that notion that the only thing that’s important to us is our waking life.

That has really emerged in the last couple of decades. We’ve been pushing sleep right into the boundary of our lives. We’ve been saying it’s not very important, we have to minimize it, and the really important thing is to get on with waking life, and the research shows that that really isn’t the case.

Even going back to the 1930s, when people started to do sleep research, they realized that even the smallest amount of sleep deprivation has a massive negative impact on the brain and body, so yeah, this stuff has been going on a long time, and we’ve known that it’s really important to our well‑being.

Sturgess: In general, what makes for good sleep?

Wiseman: All sorts of factors. Some of them are physical in terms of having a room at the right temperature, and no outside distractions, and so on, and others are psychological in terms of being in a relaxed state, and not being too anxious, and distracting your mind if there are thoughts going through it, and so on.

I think what’s really fascinating is this notion of us going through this very regimented set of events each night, which is called the sleep cycle, so it’s where you start off in waking state, you go through into stage one, stage two, which is light sleep, which is where there’s all sorts of psychological well‑being associated with that in terms of burning in important memories into the brain from the day and losing information that’s not important to us.

Then you go into deep sleep, which is really a physical repair of the body, wear and tear on the body, and then you come up into the first dream of the night, which will last about five minutes or so, and then you repeat that ninety‑minute cycle again and again with the dreams becoming longer, the time in deep sleep becoming shorter and shorter, and pretty much everyone will do that.

We all did it last night; we’ll all do it tomorrow night, yet we normally have no conscious awareness of it, so the book takes people into that journey.

Sturgess: If there are ninety‑minute cycles that are vital, then when’s the optimal time to nap? Is it a good idea to do napping?

Wiseman: Napping is a quite controversial one! In terms of circadian rhythm, which is the twenty-four‑hour cycle of when you feel alert and then a bit more sleepy, then certainly, obviously, at night, you feel sleep, assuming that rhythm is operating properly.

It’s also true that you get a drop around about 1:00, 2:00 in the afternoon, so there’s quite a few researchers that argue it is good to take a twenty‑minute or thirty‑minute nap, something like that.

You shouldn’t be napping for much longer than that because that then starts to put you into a deeper sleep, and it’s not great if you wake up from that, and that can have an impact on the quality of nighttime sleep as well, but certainly taking some kind of downtime during the day is a good idea, and research shows even a short nap, even five, six minutes, will make you more alert and focused.

Sturgess: Of course, when we’re talking about psychology, Freud is one of the big names that comes to mind; dreams and studying dreams. Do dreams really give us insights to the mind or is it just an old‑fashioned theory?

Wiseman: No, they absolutely do, and in a way, Freud was completely right to focus on them, to realize there was something going on!

The problem with Freud is that he got so much wrong; it’s incredible that you talk to people about psychology and they still mention Freud as if he’s a kind of current thinker, when actually a lot of his ideas have been completely sidelined by modern‑day psychology.

In terms of dreaming, yes, he realized that it was vital, that it wasn’t all just
“random froth on the beer of sleep,” as he phrased it. There was something going on.

The Freudian model of mind was that you have thoughts in your head which are socially unacceptable, so they might be sexual thoughts or aggressive thoughts. You kind of suppress them. You push them out of consciousness and that requires a mental energy.

Then during the day, if you make a Freudian slip, one of those thoughts kind of comes out, and the truth comes out as it were, and dreams are another way of getting at the unconscious because during dreams, according to Freud, these unconscious thoughts bubble up and then you can get access into what’s going on in people’s minds.

That really has been discredited as a model. It’s not as if every single dream is about your repressed sexual needs and so on. Instead, though, what we’re seeing is that when you wake people up in sleep labs throughout the course of the night, and you ask them about their dreams, a very particular pattern emerges, which is the early dreams are really quite terrifying. They are particularly negative.

As the night goes on, even though you’re dreaming about the same topics, the dreams become more positive, emotionally, so the argument is that we’re kind of working on our worries and concerns during the night by either going over the experience again and again, and knocking the emotional edges off them, or we’re looking for solutions.

Yes, dreams are helping us. They are vital to our psychological well‑being.

Sturgess: That’s good to know because sometimes I have some very wacky dreams and I think, “OK, what’s going on here? I mean, seriously…”

Wiseman: We tend to remember our bizarre dreams, but actually very few of our dreams are bizarre! Most of them, around about 90 percent of them, are deeply dull. For the book, I spoke to sleep experts who spent their entire lives waking people up from a dream state and asking for dream reports, and they said, “You know, it really is quite dull. You wake people and go, ‘What was happening?’ and they say, ‘I was just in the office sorting out some invoices.’”

Most of our dreams really are a continuation of everyday life, and therefore not that interesting—it’s just we tend to remember the bizarre ones.

Sturgess: Reporting on dreams is something that you even created an app for—DreamOn. That’s one of the things I like about your work, that people can take part in experiments that then inform the research, whether it be luck, magic, productivity. What were some of the findings from the app that you created for the book?

Wiseman: DreamOn is still out there—it’s for the iPhone, it’s all free to download, and it was a very ambitious idea. When we launched it, lots of sleep researchers said, “This is never going to work. Good luck to you, but this will never work”!

The idea was very simple, that before you would go to bed, you would open the app, you would choose when you wanted to wake up, so it might be 8:30 in the morning or something, and then you would say, “OK, tonight, just before I wake up, I would like to be dreaming about walking along the beach, or going for a cycle through the city,” or whatever it is. There are various options given to you.

Then, in a half‑an‑hour or so before you woke up, the app very quietly played in what we called a soundscape: sounds which reflected the sort of the dream you wanted to have, so if you wanted to walk along the beach, it was the sound of waves lapping against the sand and so on.

Then in the morning, when you were woken up by the alarm, you were asked to send in a dream report, you type that in, sent it off to us, and we have collected millions of dream reports.

The app was downloaded about a half‑a‑million times and lots of people used it several times throughout the year. We could then look to see whether these soundscapes really did influence people’s dreams, gave them sweeter dreams, and the answer is they absolutely did, so particularly the nature soundscape, which has the sounds of birds chirping in the trees, when people selected that and were exposed to those sounds, they had a much nicer and much more pleasant dream.

It really matters because that last dream of the night dictates your mood in the morning. Although you may not even remember the dream, it still has that important effect, so we have the possibility now of getting people to wake up in a better mood.

There is a massive relationship between depression and dreaming, with depressives dreaming far more than most and having quite negative dreams, as they try to work through their worries and concerns, so we have that possibility of maybe going in and making their dreams a bit more pleasant.

There’s also other research and findings on YouTube—we have millions of views. In fact, for the launch of the book, we also put a track which is scientifically designed to help people get to sleep, which apparently works very well with babies is some of the feedback we’re getting, so it’s a very soothing hour‑long track which is on there that people can listen to for free as well, and that’s based on scientific research into what sorts of music makes us most relaxed.

Sturgess: What’s next? What have you got planned after this? Because this was a tremendous book as there was so much research in it...

Wiseman: Yes, it was a huge amount of work, particularly with the dream studies, so right now I get the joy of going out and promoting the book at various science festivals, and that’s always fun. That’s the kind of good part, after you’ve spent so long writing it, is you get to talk about it and do interviews like this!

Then in terms of what’s next on the agenda, I will be at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, actually, with two shows, one of them about the paranormal and another secret show!

Richard Wiseman’s official site can be found at www.richardwiseman.com and his blog is at www.richardwiseman.wordpress.com.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.